What is White Water Rafting? Why is it Called That?

What is White Water Rafting?

Traveling down river rapids in a rubber boat can seem quite intimidating and even scary at first. However, white water rafting is widely popular, a thrilling and adventurous experience, and done with the help of a licensed guide and rafting company, quite safe.

What is white water rafting? White water rafting is a recreational water sport where an inflatable raft carries 4 to 8 people down white water rapids on a river. White water river rafting is considered an adventure sport and has varying levels of difficulty. Typically, an experienced rafting guide will accompany beginners.

In this article we’ll cover the basics of what river rafting is, and why it’s called “white water” rafting. We’ll also discuss the proper river rafting gear, such as clothing and equipment, when planning to go on a rafting trip.

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What is River Rafting?

The first attempts at white water river rafting trips were as a result of military and explorational needs to cross dangerous rivers. Early attempts at running river rapidsas early as the 1800soften failed. It wasn’t until the mid-1900and the invention of new, better river raft materialsthat much more successful rubber rafts made running rapids more feasible.. 

These rubber rafts would eventually become recreational and then commercialized, with recreational adventure sport companies starting to take off in the 1960s.

Nowadays, river rafting is a very popular and widespread adventure sport that draws thousands of tourists and lots of money each rafting season. And river rafts have seen many technological advancements that have vastly improved the equipment’s quality and safety performance levels. 

River Rafts are Inflatable

Most white water river rafts seen today are large and inflatable boats that range from being able to hold one-person to being able to hold around 8 people. They are typically made from synthetic rubber that’s both weather resistant and highly durable.

White water rafts are made up of many components. The anatomy of a river raft is designed both to help the raft withstand the harsh conditions of white water as well as to help brace and stabilize the riders within.

Within the raft are typically two to three thwarts, depending on the size of the raft. Thwarts are the cross tubes that are filled with air. These help to both provide rigidity to the boat as well as an extra place for riders to wedge their feet and secure themselves. 

White water river rafts will also typically have foot holes or cups of some kind for paddlers to place their feet into. The foot cups are generally at the front of the raft where there is no thwart for the paddler to use. Additionally, rafts will have handles and ropes attached to the sides or thwarts; these help with transporting the raft and provide a safety measure in case someone falls out and needs to grab onto the raft. 

Rafting Guides Help Novice Paddlers Navigate Safely Down the River

Unless you’re a highly experienced white-water paddler, river rafting is one sport where you definitely want a guide. It’s highly recommended that you go rafting under the supervision of a trained rafting guide, at least for your first few trips.

Guides sit in the middle of the back of the raft and are responsible for reading the river, navigating the raft, and instructing the paddlers in the raft. The guide will have the majority of the steering power. 

Guides will also generally provide instruction prior to and during the trip. This will include general facts about the river and route being paddled, as well as specifics such as commands to listen for and safety tips for if a paddler goes overboard. Commands given by a rafting guide are very important to listen to and follow, as the guide needs the paddlers in order to fully control the raft. 

Rafting Season and River Levels Change the Experience

Rafting season is the time of year when you are able to take safe rafting trips down a river. Most commercial companies will only run trips during the warmer months between April and September. This is the most common time period for rafting seasons; however, it does vary depending on what location you’re going to raftt. 

Time of year is not all that affects white water rafting. River level highly impacts the availability and frequency of trips. Rivers can reach dangerous levels after heavy rain or flooding. This will typically cause rafting trips to be cancelled or rescheduled. Additionally, some river levels are controlled by dams, and paddling trips must be planned around dam releases.

Beginners should always go rafting with guides for this reason.

As fun as the sport may be, white water rafting is also dangerous, especially for the inexperienced. Always go with a guide and reputable rafting company. 

Why do they call it White Water Rafting?

River rafting is called “white water” or “whitewater” rafting due to the rapids that occur naturally throughout stretches of a river. White water is actually formed from turbulence in the rapids resulting from fast-flowing currents.

According to French Broad Rafting, the four factors that can create rapids are:

  1. Gradient – Steeper gradients result in more fast and rough rapids.
  2. Constriction – Constriction refers to a river flowing through a tight space or corridor, causing the river’s flow to hasten.
  3. Obstruction – Obstructions are generally large boulders or underwater cliffs that result in disruption of the flow.
  4. River flow rate – Flow rate refers to the quantity of water passing through a river and can result in rapids that were not present at lower flow rates.

All four of these contribute to the creation of “white”-water rapids, though they can do so individually or in combination with each other. 

Rapids are Divided into Classes

Whitewater rivers and creeks are measured in difficulty and technicality to determine what level of experience is needed to paddle them. These are known as whitewater classes of rapids.

Whitewater classes are a range of classifications used by paddlers to choose and plan a route. While some areas, such as the Grand Canyon, may have their own special classifications to fit specific terrain, there are 6 general classes applied to most whitewater.

The international rapids class scale of difficulty are as follows:

  1. Class I is the easiest and safest whitewater. Some paddlers do not even consider Class I true whitewater. However, it can still have obstructions and other difficulties that place it on the classification scale.
  2. Class II is also considered mild to moderate with few moves requiring technical maneuvers or experience. This class is recommended for novices. 
  3. Class III is considered intermediate, with less river stability. This class is where more complicated maneuvers begin to arise.
  4. Class IV is an advanced class. The waves produced by these rapids are much larger, with sometimes unavoidable river features that require precise maneuvering. Falling out of the raft becomes much more dangerous from this class upwards.
  5. Class V is recommended for experts. The waves and river features will be much larger and more complex, requiring high levels of river-reading capability. 
  6. Class VI is dangerous even for experts. This class is considered extreme and exploratory, and sections of this class of rapids may be impossible for rescuers to reach. This class should be approached only by experts and with extreme caution.

Preparing for a Rafting Trip

When preparing, it is important to consider what you’ll need to bring on a white water river rafting trip. Proper attire is a must. Avoiding heavy clothes, like long jeans and jackets, will be helpful if you end up in the water. Heavy clothes make for a heavy swim.

Additionally, closed toed shoes are often required in the event that you end up in the water. White water often has many rocks that can injure your feet.

Paddles, life jackets, and helmets should all be provided and required by the rafting company you’re going with. Always do research into the classifications and routes that a company offers. Some rafting companies may be more beginner friendly or reputable than others.

White Water Rafting Wrap Up

White water rafting is a thrilling adventure sport that ranges in difficulty from beginner friendly to expert only. It’s important to know the different classifications of white water before you go rafting.

Never go white water river rafting alone, and always listen to the commands of your guide. Lastly, white water rafting is an exciting adventurous way to explore the outdoors and you should definitely add it to your bucket list.


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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